Hope floats for Delhi’s e-rickshaws after minister’s backing

July 15, 2014

The office of the New Arcana India e-rickshaw company is not easy to find. It is in a nondescript building nestled among other nondescript buildings in West Subhash Nagar, a middle-class neighbourhood of New Delhi.

If enthusiasm showed up on a map, it would be hard to miss the place. Inside on a recent Thursday, a meeting of Delhi’s Battery Rickshaw Welfare Association was in session. Steaming cups of tea were being handed out to members, mostly manufacturers of battery-operated rickshaws.

There are an estimated 100,000 such “e-rickshaws” working Delhi’s streets. Introduced in 2010 and operated by unlicensed drivers, they are a less environmentally harmful and cheap way to get around the city compared to traditional gas-powered autorickshaws and cars that are too expensive for many people to buy. They’re also easier on the operators than pulling a traditional rickshaw or riding a bicycle taxi. But transportation officials nearly made driving e-rickshaws illegal earlier this year in a bid to curb nightmarish traffic congestion and reckless driving.

“Police used to trouble us sometimes. They would stop us for minor offences, forcing us to stop work during the day,” said e-rickshaw driver Narendra Kumar, a bearded 60-year-old man and former street hawker.

The Delhi Transport Department first started issuing tickets to e-rickshaw drivers around September 2013. On March 6 this year, operators were asked to get within six months the government’s sanction that their vehicles met design specifications.

“These clearances are for a vehicle’s design and safety standards, never for driving. Also, it means spending 300,000 rupees ($5,000). It was a tall order for drivers and didn’t make sense,” said Pawan Kakkar, who makes Chetak e-rickshaws.

(Click here to watch video by Sankalp Phartiyal on YouTube)

On April 24, the central road ministry effectively banned e-rickshaws by slotting them with motorized vehicles and imposing many restrictions.

At a rally last month, new BJP transport minister Nitin Gadkari reversed that decision, which the Delhi city government made. On July 1, an Indian Express report alleged that Gadkari’s decision to lift the ban would benefit an e-rickshaw manufacturing company run by his brother-in-law. The minister denied the allegation.

Politics aside, the withdrawal of the ban came as a relief for e-rickshaw drivers like Mohammad Rasool, 41, who moved from the state of Bihar 20 years ago to make a living in New Delhi. He bought his e-rickshaw for 60,000 rupees, or $1,000, and earns about 500 rupees, or $8, a day.

“This vehicle is literally saving my life. Pulling a manual rickshaw was very physically taxing,” said Rasool. “I enjoy driving this because all you have to do is push the brakes or the accelerator.”

Why ban e-rickshaws if they’re environmentally friendly, good for passengers and create jobs? Some people complained that the drivers would stuff as many as eight passengers into a space that should only accommodate four people. Some drivers also installed batteries that exceeded the authorized motor power of 250 watts, which allowed them to drive at higher speeds and increased the risk of accidents.

Manufacturers said those fears are exaggerated as these vehicles usually don’t run at more than 20-25 kilometres per hour, making them far slower and safer than auto-rickshaws.

The Delhi government had tried to regulate the business for several years, but some e-rickshaw operators said the notifications weren’t officially announced and so, weren’t legally binding. Others said they continued to manufacture e-rickshaws but sold the vehicles outside Delhi, so they never violated any guideline. The government crackdown in April hit manufacturers hard.

“I sold approximately 100 units per month. After the ban, it came down to zero,” said Ravindra Katiyar, owner of the Yatri brand of e-rickshaws.

While exact numbers are hard to come by, the Battery Rickshaw Welfare Association said that at their peak between July and November last year, about 3,000 e-rickshaws were being sold in Delhi and its suburbs each month.

Now, sales are expected to resume. Gadkari said that e-rickshaws with motor power up to 650 watts would be considered as “non-motorised vehicles.” He also promised to simplify the vehicle registration process and to facilitate loans to buy the rickshaws as well as give identity cards to drivers.

E-rickshaw manufacturers have welcomed Gadkari’s statement but said they want more clarity on how e-rickshaws should be made, sold and run.

“There is need for insurance of drivers and vehicles, and finance too,” Kakkar said, adding an official body like the Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI) should test the power of e-rickshaw motors. This would eliminate the possibility of manufacturers breaching the upper limit on motor power, a sore point with the authorities.

Manufacturers think it will take a few weeks to round up some 3,000 labourers who build the rickshaws in Delhi as well as others who work in other businesses such as repairing, painting for manufacturing and supplying parts.

“Overall, we can confidently say that about 150,000 families have benefited in Delhi NCR [National Capital Region] alone. Outside Delhi, the figure will be larger,” said Anuj Sharma, an e-rickshaw seller.

Despite Gadkari’s backing, not everyone believes that e-rickshaws are a good investment.

Pawan Malhotra, who sells generators at his shop in Delhi’s Mayapuri locality, bought five e-rickshaws about a year ago.

“These rickshaws, which are mostly imported from China, aren’t worth more than 26,000 rupees ($430) each. In India they began selling it for 100,000 ($1,670), eventually bringing the cost down to about 65,000 rupees ($1,085) now,” said Malhotra, 33.

(Editing by Tony Tharakan and Robert MacMillan; Video by Sankalp Phartiyal; Follow Tony on Twitter at @TonyTharakan, Robert @bobbymacReports, Anupriya @anupriyakumar and Sankalp @sankalp_sp | This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission)

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